Cork Airport essential for southern economy

A lack of urgency at national level and joined-up thinking at local level has seen Cork Airport falling behind in the quest for passenger numbers, writes Cork TD Jerry Buttimer            

CORK Airport is more than a source of pride for our city and county. It is crucial to the economy of the entire southern region and it is a key driver of tourism, trade, and investment.

While there has been a decline in passenger numbers at Cork Airport, it remains our country’s second busiest international airport. Passengers flying from Cork Airport have a choice of 44 scheduled destinations, and more than 50 when you add seasonal charters to sun and ski destinations. This compares to only 29 destinations available from Shannon. For people travelling to and from the south of the country, Cork Airport offers more routes and more options when it comes to fights.

This reality needs to be broadcast, the benefits of using Cork Airport need to marketed, and the region needs to be promoted here at home and overseas.

READ MORE: Cork Airport could be ‘passed out’ as Ireland’s second busiest.

When one examines the drop in passenger numbers at Cork Airport, there are some interesting trends. Between 2008 and 2010, passenger numbers fell by almost 1m; approximately 500,000 alone were due to the loss of the Cork-Dublin route. Overall, since 2008, passenger numbers fell by 1.1m, from 3.3m to 2.2m. Last year, passenger numbers fell by 110,000; of this 102,000 was due to some flights serving Eastern European destinations ending and some moving to Shannon. Despite these changes, Cork Airport continues to be serviced by five scheduled airlines and new destinations are coming on stream.

Airport charges are not a deterrent for airlines choosing Cork. For the last 13 years, there has been no increase in charges. Cork is 8% cheaper than its European peers and 17% cheaper than Dublin.

Czech Airlines recently announced flights from Cork to two new destinations, Prague and Ibiza. FlyBe has announced a year-round, twice-weekly service to Cardiff. Aer Lingus Regional recently added summer flights to Jersey and Rennes to its Cork schedule. These airlines see Cork as offering good value and recognise the potential to grow passenger numbers.

In discussing Cork Airport, much attention is focussed on the issue of debt. Yes, this is an issue, but it is a long-term issue. The excessive debt that Cork Airport was saddled with rests on the books of the Dublin Airport Authority, meaning it does not impinge on the day-to-day operations of Cork Airport, which makes an operating profit each year. Even if the issue of debt was res- olved, it would not give Cork Airport the stimulus for growth that it needs.

What is needed is a comprehensive marketing and tourism strategy for Cork. Indeed, we need marketing and tourism strategies for Cork and the entire southern region. Additionally, the airport needs access to a route development fund to attract new airlines and add even more routes.

Currently, no one body is responsible for developing tourism in Cork. The remit of Tourism Ireland is to grow tourism on the island of Ireland, while Failte Ireland says its role is to work with industry. Meanwhile, both Cork City and County Councils focus on marketing their respective areas.

Recently, attempts have been made to develop a unified marketing and tourism strategy for Cork, but very little progress has been made. Last year, Cork INC was established but little has been heard from it. Fáilte Ireland set up a group to put together a strategy to market Cork but it will be nine months before anything is heard about its plans. Clearly, marketing Cork as a destination has not been treated with the urgency it deserves.

This unco-ordinated approach is not serving the interests of Cork or Cork Airport. In fact, the current situation is only leading to confusion. Even the simple issue of a unified website for Cork hasn’t been addressed. Cork City Council uses cork.ie and Cork County Council uses visitcountycork.com.

This could be easily changed. Tourism Ireland should be explicitly tasked with growing regional tourism and traffic at airports outside of Dublin. Also, a policy decision to task one group with marketing and promoting tourism in Cork and Cork Airport as the gateway for the southern region, the Wild Atlantic Way and Ireland’s Ancient East, could rapidly assist in overcoming present difficulties. Both councils should pool resources and rapidly develop a strategy to promote Cork as a single brand.

In order to develop new routes from Cork Airport, we need a dedicated marketing fund that will incentivise airlines to choose Cork. This should be a national fund which assists airports, except Dublin, to develop new routes. It could be similar to a recent initiative in the UK which has been shown to be permissible under EU rules. If this option was utilised the distribution of funds should take into account the amount of State funding provided directly to each airport through PSO contracts and other measures.

Simple one-line answers will not help Cork Airport. What will help is a multifaceted approach that looks at autonomy, marketing and promotion. Cork Airport has many strategic advantages. It is located in a county with a population of more than 500,000 people, it is at the centre of the pharmaceutical industry in Ireland and it is on the doorstep of an increasing number of the world’s leading technology companies.

We are all concerned about the future of the airport and we must work together to put in place structures and supports that will enable the airport to be properly marketed and promoted. I believe that the steps I have outlined above can form the basis for reversing recent trends at Cork Airport. I have set out all of these suggestions in writing to and at meetings with the Taoiseach and Minister for Transport, Tourism, and Sport. Policy change can help Cork Airport but it is already in a strong position. It is the country’s second busiest airport by a significant distance and it has more scheduled route options than any other airport in the country outside Dublin.

Jerry Buttimer is a member of Dáil Éireann and chairman of the joint Oireachtas committee on health and children

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